Travelogue LXXI: Berlin Again


Hackischer Höfe–street art, anarchy, eros, tourism.

July 20, 2016 Berlin again–my fourth time in the city, and the first time I was able to get a glimpse into the world behind the city’s glamorous tourist front, if only for the few days we spent visiting friends and sleeping in an apartment in Neukölln with the s-train roaring by all night long. The whole place is growing on me.




Berlin is full of artists and hippies and anarchists, and also hipsters posing as artists and hippies and anarchists. Gentrification is the most pressing buzzword in the Vororte (outskirts)–the process by which poor, “problematic” neighborhoods are cleaned up to suit the values and tastes of middle-class apartment-buyers. “First the social workers show up, and then the police, and then the hipsters,” said a friend of Jonathan’s, himself a social worker in an especially metamorphic area of the city. “In a few years, no local will be able to afford to live here anymore.” What do you do when you find your neighborhood suddenly sanitized beyond recognition, and the rent prices are going through the roof, and you are suddenly surrounded by the young and privileged and have nowhere to go?

Right now, Berlin is in transition, and the discrepancies that come along with that are obvious even to an outsider. It is a jarring experience, to sit in a café surrounded by MacBooks and 4-euro coffee served artfully in mason jars (and to be drinking that coffee yourself), and look out the window at legless beggars and children in dirty clothes playing on the sidewalk.

Am I at this moment part of the the solution, or part of the problem? 







In the end, though, Berlin has always been a city in transition of some form or another, and despite or because of the tension and discrepancy the city has something–an openness, sexiness, energy, a pressing sense of the past and a vicious exhilarating drive towards the future. You can be whatever you want here–queer, crazy, bourgeois, elite–and you will find a place to fit in to–a dive-bar in Neukölln with police sirens blaring by outside at all hours of the day and night, or a flower-filled garden outside of the Literaturhaus, the arts section of Die Zeit open on your lap.

Jonathan and I both said that if our careers and lives weren’t taking us in two opposite directions, we would move to Berlin together. We weren’t alone, we were told. “The whole world wants to move here,” said a friend, himself a student and long-time resident. “We thought the hype would stop eventually, but it just keeps getting stronger. So act now. In two years, even people as privileged as us won’t be able to afford the place.”






After a week we were exhausted but also wanted to stay longer. Mainz, with not a soul in sight when we got off the train at one in the morning, seems almost eerily peaceful in comparison.




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Travelogue LVII: Bayreuth IV: Ring

Frank Castorf's Ring production: Euro-trash or a provocative examination of capitalism, greed, US-Germany relations, etc. etc? Here, the final act of Siegfried under a socialistic Mount Rushmore.

Frank Castorf’s Ring production: Euro-trash or a provocative examination of capitalism, oil, US-Germany relations, etc. etc? Here, the final act of Siegfried under a socialistic Mount Rushmore. (All Photos)

August 31, 2015 And just like that, the curtain closed on the final act of Götterdämmerung and we were applauding, partly out of enthusiasm and partly out of relief, fifteen hours of music and bad seats behind us, and then we walked down the five flights of steps from the Galarie one last time and drank one more glass of wine and took the taxi back to the hostel. “Ah well,” said the man who sat next to me through all four operas, “I suppose it’s time to leave the Magic Mountain and re-enter the real world.” Indeed.

Götterdãmmerung: the Gibichungs are owners of a Döner shop somewhere in the slums of Berlin.

Götterdãmmerung: the Gibichungs are owners of a Döner shop somewhere in the slums of Berlin.

I think, in the end, it will be the smaller moments that will stick with me the most. Like standing behind the brass players, close enough to touch them, as they played Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s theme on the balcony in the rain at the end of an intermission. Or like our picnics on the lawn, and the local Bayreuther who walked by every day at precisely 6:30 with a big, fat, drooling, wheezing, entirely self-satisfied bulldog, to the general disgust of the ball-gowned Festival guests.

Or walking back in a torrential downpour after the best Siegfried I had heard in my life, with Anders from Denmark and Philip and Thomas from Germany, to drip-dry and drink cheap wine in some sketchy Turkish restaurant next to the train station, and talking and talking until the restaurant owner threw us out.

Or the sudden enlightenment from talking to more knowledgeable Wagnerians in between acts. So that’s why it’s set on Alexanderplatz! And that’s the reason for the dynamic between Siegfried and the Forest Bird. It’s not just regie-trash, something is actually being said! Clarity through exchange, there.

Siegfried and the Forest Bird on pre-reunification Alexanderplatz.

Siegfried and the Forest Bird on pre-reunification Alexanderplatz.

As cheesy as it sounds, I suppose it really all did come down to the people in the end–those crazy, passionate, snobby, suffering, over-dressed, opinionated, cynical-yet-somehow-endearing Festival-goers.

There was the gentleman behind me, for instance, who had sat in the Festspielhaus 79 times starting in 1961 and could remember the most minute details about every production he had seen. All that, while wearing full Bavarian dress: Lederhosen, red-and-white checked shirt, cap with feather.

Or the overly zealous Asian in front of me, who wept over a dog-eared copy of the libretto in between acts and booed the production until he was hoarse. Or the James Levine look-alike (I swear, it was this guy!) beside him, who took it as his personal duty to drown out the boos with so many enthusiastic BRAVIs that he almost fell over the balcony. And on and on and on…..

At any rate, I’ll be back.

Brünnhilde and the Rhine Maidens in the closing scene of Götterdãmmerung, against a backdrop of the New York Stock Exchange, previously the wrapped Reichstag.

Brünnhilde and the Rhine Maidens in the closing scene of Götterdãmmerung, against a backdrop of the New York Stock Exchange, previously the wrapped Reichstag.

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Travelogue L: Berlin Impressions


 July 20, 2015 Writing any sort of neat summary post about Berlin is more or less impossible. As I have written before, the very nature of the city defies all attempts at synopsis: historically and architecturally, it is a place of metamorphosis and not of stability. One minute you are walking down some gorgeous boulevard surrounded by theaters and old restaurants, the next you are standing in front of a construction zone, with half the street torn up and posters of what it all looked like before 1989 hanging on the chain-link fence beside you. But the constant shift is what makes it all so exciting.

And it is exciting. You ride the U-Bahn and S-Bahn (subway and overground) uptown, downtown, to some tiny restaurant in the Friedrichsstraße and back again to the Brandenburg Gate. You wolf down a plate of  peppers and couscous at the Turkish Market on the river. You stand for an hour in the line outside the National Gallery to see the Expressionists, in sunshine so penetrating that the museum staff passes out umbrellas. You talk until two, three, four in the morning about God and Eros and Art–after the Theater, in the hotel bar, in some gorgeous tiled courtyard at the Hackescher Markt. All through a haze of movement and wine and overstimulation that is both heady and exhausting.

“Man kann ja schlafen, wenn man tot ist,” I say. You can sleep when you’re dead.

Central Station.

Central Station.

This time around, it was Berlin’s infrastructure, and specifically the city’s massive public transportation system, that struck me the most.

The whole place runs on a great tangle of S- and U-Bahn stations, some works of art in and of themselves, some rivaling Frankfurt for dirt and stink. One has the feeling of being within a great machine–no, more than a machine, in some sort of living and breathing organism. The Central Station, five stories of glass and steel, serves some 1,800 trains and 350,000 travelers each day. The energy that pervades the rest of the city is felt in every station in the Innenstadt: a new train roaring in every three minutes, throw yourself on and then off again, stand because all the seats are taken.

Above all, I was shocked at (and perhaps more than a little proud of) the relative ease with which I was able to maneuver through it all, after a year abroad. It’s a feeling of accomplishment, of power even, to sift through thousands of connections and timetables, to get on the right train, and to know exactly where you are and where you are going. If only the rest of existence was that simple.

Still, it’s all something that can be learned. A year ago I didn’t even know that you had to push the “Stop” button the bus if you wanted to get off at the next station. But things move forward. The Mädchen vom Land (country girl) is now thriving in the European jungle, folks.


Mirror image in the Central Station, S-Bahn platform.

The position of the Berlin Wall is marked throughout the city, even though it doesn't exist anymore--a line drawn through buildings, across streets, behind the Brandenburg Gate.

The position of the Berlin Wall is marked throughout the city, even though it doesn’t exist anymore–a line drawn through buildings, across streets, behind the Brandenburg Gate.

Inside the Ständige Vertretung.

Inside the Ständige Vertretung, a restaurant on the river that serves as a sort of shrine, in the best sense of the word. to pre-reunification Germany.

The Holocaust memorial--direct in the heart of the city, inescapable.

The Holocaust memorial–direct in the heart of the city, inescapable.

The seat of Hitler's bunker in Berlin, where he committed suicide and where Goebbel's wife killed her six children--a parking lot and utilitarian appartments. The lack of any sort of monument is just as fitting and unsettling as the massive memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust across the street.

The seat of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, where he committed suicide and where Goebbel and his wife poisoned their six children–a parking lot and utilitarian appartments. The lack of any sort of monument is just as fitting and unsettling as the massive memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust across the street.

In the S-Bahn.

In the S-Bahn.


Willkommen in Berlin. Welcome to Berlin.

In the end, after three days in Berlin I was completely and utterly exhausted. But I think that was more from the talking-till-four-in-the-morning than from anything else. Dialogue at its most intense is one of the most beautifully draining experiences on this planet.

Travelogue III: Berlin

IMG_0144Berlin Wall

18. Juli, 2014 If Munich is all stability, conservatism and settledness, then Berlin is its polar opposite–restless, scandalous, disparate, a miss-mash of old and new, renewal and decay. It’s thrilling, though I think I will always prefer Munich’s particular beauty and stateliness.

IMG_0192A typical Berlin skyline–old and new together, everything in transition, always with a dozen cranes from construction sites in the background.

We arrived late last night, and got on a boat this morning to take a tour of the city. We docked at the Turkish Market, and climbed a flight of stairs to the street. Suddenly, we weren’t in Germany any more, but in some open bazaar in some city to the South and East–rugs and bolts of silk and glass beads and vegetables and Doener, all being hawked with utmost enthusiasm in Turkish, brilliant colors everywhere.




On the way back, we looked up events for the evening in a local newspaper. The professor and I found a baroque concert in Schloss Charlottenburg, and went to hear a Vivaldi concerto and early Mozart arias, surrounded by Berlin’s most wealthy and privileged.

schloss-charlottenburgSchloss Charlottenburg

19. Juli, 2014 Unbearably hot the entire day–I came early back to the hotel, blessedly one of the few with air conditioning in the entire city, and slept till early evening. Then off again, with the entire group this time, to the Deutsch-Französisches Fest–sponsored by the French Embassy, held in front of the Brandenburger Tor. “This is a good time for my country,” said the professor, “when the French feel that they can come to the most German spot in the most German city and throw a party. I find that very hopeful.” And the French know how to party–packed open-air tables, food and wine and German beer, drinking songs and dancing and then a performance by a Berlin rapper who is apparently insanely popular in France.

One has the feeling that Berlin is 10 cities instead of one. Crazy, that 24 hours ago I was sitting in evening-wear in a pristine concert hall, listening to Italian arias and drinking Champagne–and that 36 hours ago I was trying to figure out how to pronounce Gözleme, surrounded by Turkish housewives haggling over the price of fresh fruit or fish or bolts of fabric. And now I’m being deafened by an open-air rap concert at a table with 15 of my new best friends, eating French pizza and wishing I could dance.

brandenburger-torBrandenburger Tor, minus a bunch of very happy, very drunk French partygoers, and a very bad German rapper. 

In Munich, too, but especially in Berlin, the internationality of it all is staggering–in the Turkish Market, we might as well not be in Europe at all, in the tiny Italian cafe in Gendarmenmarkt, the couples at the other tables are from Australia, Holland, Italy. At the French-German Fest, we solve all the world’s problems at a table with Maria from Ireland, Jean from France, and the friends they had just met from Spain. With a shared bottle of rosé and a tarte flambée from the stand across the square, all screaming to be heard over the music, speaking in a mixture of German and English and very bad French. It’s all playing with language, with cultural differences, with stereotypes and idioms and bad jokes. Maria teaches us phrases in Gaelic, we all learn a French drinking song because the people at the next table haven’t stopped singing it for hours, and the American students give the German professors an education in modern American slang–“trolling,” “mosh pit,” “duckface.” Very important vocabulary, that.

To me, this is all so new–my childhood in small-town New England and undergrad in the conservative Midwest, wonderful as they were, didn’t really lend themselves to this sort of dialog. And here, I am loving it–a thousand perspectives and ways of thinking, a dozen new languages. If you listen hard enough, with a little Latin you can start picking up French and Italian within a few minutes.

And the pace, too, is so different from anything I am used to, here in one of most vibrant cities in Europe. Even with the conservative professors, you go out to eat AFTER the concert, not before, and then to a cafe for another glass of wine, and then back to the hotel to sit in the garden and talk and laugh harder than you have laughed in months. If you make it back to the room before 2am, it’s an early night.

20. Juli, 2014 In the morning, we take a tour of the Reichstag, the seat of German government. Only the outside is original–everything inside was re-built post-reunification, to match Germany’s new emphasis on transparency and clarity. The building is part art museum, part memorial, part politics, all glass and efficient clean lines. It’s possible to look right through the entire structure, through the parliament room and offices to the heaven on the other side, as our tour guide tells us. It is obvious that this is the political seat of a country that is peaceful and successful and at least half-way intelligent.

IMG_0136Reichstag from the river-side.

IMG_0186From the front. The inscription: “To the German people.”

IMG_0139The past is still very much felt–bullet holes left over from WWII.

10_57d8c64005816c718c79d310e001675aParliament, unfortunately minus Angela Merkel

IMG_0190Dome above the building, with views of the city on all sides and of the parliament room below.

IMG_0194Inside the dome

In the afternoon, it’s too hot to look at art. “I think I would have a panic attack if I had to see a Kandinsky right now,” says the professor. So I, who am always so uptight and driven and have to be doing doing doing, sit for four hours in a cafe at the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt, sometimes talking about literature or the funny things the students said last night, but mostly in silence. It’s a privilege, this.


Afterwards, the train ride back to Wuerzburg is pretty hellish. Delays on both ends, unbearably hot and sticky on the slow train to Hannover, missed connections and resulting loss of seat reservations between Hannover and Wuerzburg. But when we finally arrive in the tiny train station at 11pm, the clouds open and the heat finally breaks, with thunder and wonderfully cold wind on the way back to the dorms.


Note: for a less-rambly post on Berlin from two years ago, with lots more pictures and infos, click here.

Berlin: Die Stadt

Yes, technically I am back in America….but I still have a few posts to write! I haven’t posted anything yet about Berlin, where we spent our second long weekend. It is a raw, crazy, thrilling city–lots of energy and little money, awake all day and all night. The happenings of the past century are still very present.

The downtown areas were a kaleidoscope mixture of old and new, shabby and posh together with construction sites everywhere. Here’s the funky artists’ street…


The brand-new high-tech Sony Center….

Mass housing on the East side, monochromatic and severe, left over from before the wall fell…

The West side up-scale quarter with classical architecture…. (yes, that is the square from Run, Lola, Run)

The beautiful old Berliner Dom….

Even such stunning old buildings as the one above, however, have a blatant history. All the black is left over from a fire during WWII. The  holes from bullets are easy to see from a few steps closer.

The city is simultaneously moving on and remembering. Below is the holocaust memorial, where it poured rain.


…The wall…

Before and after shots of the Brandenburger Tor.


And perhaps most striking of all, the site of the bunker where Hitler spent his last days and then killed himself. In a city where the past is so carefully documented–here was no monument, no museum, no statue or fancy new display. Just a rather dirty parking lot.

Our group was able to take a private tour of the Reichstag building, the main seat of German government. Only the outside is original–everything inside is completely modern.

As a physical mirror of the post-Unification emphasis on transparency and openness, most of the governmental buildings are largely glass, inside and out. We could often see right through the conference halls out the other side.

Inside the Reichstag building, the room where the Parliament meets.

The great glass dome, many stories tall.


Angela Merkel’s house fits with the new regime. She rents a private apartment in the building below, no more fancy or pretentious than others on the street. In the Reichstaggebäude, her office was as simple as the rest, door unmarked saved for a name plate inscribed with “Dr. Merkel.”

And finally, one for my fellow German 400 students–remember those endless Tagesschau news programs? Here is where they are filmed!

Berlin: Kunst

Of course it would be unforgivable, to go to Berlin and not hear any music! Herr G. went to a concert every night, and was kind enough to let me trail along. We missed the Komische Oper (alas!), as the tickets were sold out. We consoled ourselves, however, and made do with two of the other 10,000 cultural events currently taking place in the city…

The first evening we went to a lovely Baroque concert in the Schloss Charlottenburg and then to dinner at midnight at the Ständige Vertretung, overlooking the river. And then the next night we heard an opera concert with two amazing young singers in the building below, and then went out to an Italian restaurant for desert. We were living it up, I tell you.

One can hardly imagine how surreal it is, to be walking around at midnight in Berlin, in a fancy dress and shawl, with three professors in evening wear arguing about wine in French, all while partially drunk on the best live singing one has heard all year. It defies reason.

And I couldn’t resist the gigantic poster of a morose Barenboim outside the Berlin Philharmonic.

And the museums! A definite highlight for me was the Pergamon, which utterly satisfied the geeky Classics side of things. The museum had full-size recreations of various ancient buildings–awe-inspiring, to say the least.


A gate from Babylon, below. As with the churches, I find such things puzzling and astounding. What drove those creators, in this instance thousands of years ago, to devote a life time to make something so beautiful?

The last place I visited was another modern art museum, this one an old restored railway station….

The main exhibition was the work of Joseph Beuys, a new one for me. He was one of the most important German artists of the previous century. I would have to spend a good deal more time with his work to make any commentary on it, other than to say that I found it exceedingly enigmatic. But I really liked the work below, dozens of blackboards filled with faint writings (in English!) on philosophy and society and geometry.


I was mostly interested in Anselm Kiefer, the second artist I had fallen for in the San Francisco MOMA. There was only one small room of his works here, and he was as difficult and as beautiful and as tied to Germany’s history as before. If Cy Twombly is Shakespeare (“What do you read, my lord? Words, words, words…”), Kiefer is Mann’s Doktor Faustus.






If you are ever in San Francisco and the exhibition is still there, go and see this one below, with the lead angel wing.


In those days Germany, a hectic flush on its cheeks, was reeling at the height of its savage triumphs, about to win the world on the strength of the one pact that it intended to keep and had signed with its blood. Today, in the embrace of demons, a hand over one eye, the other staring into the horror, it plummets from despair to despair….When, out of this final hopelessness, will a miracle that goes beyond faith bear the light of hope? A lonely man folds his hands and says, “May God have mercy on your poor soul, my friend, my fatherland.”

Closing paragraph, Doktor Faustus